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Parents encourage young children to be independent but try to restrain them when they become teenagers.
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Cultivating Independence
Feb 1997 Alan S.L. Wong

Cultivating Independence

When your child says "No" to you ... is this a reflection of his rebellious sin nature?

While it is true that every child is born a sinner (Psa. 51:5 and Rom. 5:12), each child is also wonderfully made in the image of God (Psa. 139:13-16 and Gen. 1:26-27) with a free will to choose. Exercising his will (independence) is an essential part of his development.

A child needs to learn to say "No" ... even to his parents ... if he is to stand up to peer pressure later in life. Therefore, it is important for parents to distinguish between wilful defiance against parental authority and a bid for autonomy.

Toddler Pounding Floor with A Hammer

Toddlers

The toddler is at a stage when he realizes that he is a separate person ... with his own "want" and "don't want." He wants to do things for himself without help or hindrance from other people. Muscular development enhances this bid for autonomy as toddlers try to use their developing muscles to walk, climb, hop and jump and to explore their environment.

Potentially, toddlers can get into dangerous situations. Parents need to balance encouragement with restraint. It is important that we child-proof the home so as to offer freedom and safety for the toddler to explore his environment.

Once we have removed the major hazards from the toddler's environment, parents should not hover protectively over him. Children need room to make mistakes, to learn from them and to tolerate bumps and bruises as part and parcel of life.

Excessively protective parents may unconsciously frustrate and stifle a toddler's attempts to do things on his own. Parents who do not distinguish between defiance and mistakes may harshly criticize their children for "accidents" (e.g., wetting, soiling, spilling or breaking things) and the children may doubt their own abilities to tackle new challenges.

Preschoolers and Early Primaries

Preparing our children for independence begins when they are young by equipping them with the necessary skills for independent living. Below are our suggested steps to independence:

  1. Choose a skill or routine you want your child to learn. Break down the skill into steps manageable by your child.

    For example, bathing can be broken down into soaping his body, hands and legs; showering his body, hands and legs; "shampooing" his hair; scrubbing his hair; and washing off the shampoo.

  2. Agree upon incentives for the first step that your child can do and is willing to do.

  3. Provide the needed instruction ... tell and show. Then have them do it consistently. Observe and guide the child.

  4. As your child masters the first step, phase out the reward and move on to the next step of the routine and its reward.

  5. Repeat the procedure to teach one step at a time until he can do the whole routine.

  6. Seek to develop the behaviour into a lifestyle then move on to the next target routine.
As you seek to develop independence, balance it with servanthood ... that they learn to serve one another. Jesus redefined greatness to include servanthood (Mark 10:43-45). When my boys ask Hui Meng to get them a drink, I would lift up their arms and ask, "What are these?" Then pressing their legs, I ask, "What are these?" "You've hands and legs, go and get it yourself." Once I was watching television, I asked my younger son to get me a cup of water and he did. He could have said, "You've hands and legs, go get it yourself!" He didn't. Even if he did, I would have no right to be angry. I guessed one reason he did not say those words was that there have been times when I got them a drink. Some of you, who are blessed with a maid to take care of the children and household chores, will face a greater challenge in cultivating independence and servanthood in your children.

The next facet of cultivating independence is giving them some choices about what to eat, what to wear, and how to spend their money. If we don't let our children make their own decisions then they may grow up to be emotionally dependent adults.

As you encourage independence, be prepared for a clash of will. Parents can avoid unnecessary power struggles by giving limited choices. For example, "Which of these two shirts do you want to wear?" "Do you want chicken rice or 'wanton mee' for lunch?" There is no need to threaten your child to finish his food. He can choose not to finish it. If he doesn't finish his food, I usually say, "You must be full or you are not hungry." Now is the right time to serve dessert! Children need to learn to make decisions ... some good and some bad ... and live with the consequences.

Teenagers

During the growing years, parents try to encourage their children to be independent. The irony is that when our children become teenagers, we try to restrain their independence. We are afraid that they mix with bad company and pick up bad morals. If we have been training them to make wise and independent decisions, then trust them. Share your views (the pros and cons) on the issue at hand and allow them to make their own decisions.

It wasn't easy for the father in Luke 15:11-31 to give his younger son his portion of the inheritance and see him leave home with it. The son squandered his money in loose living with prostitutes. He had to live with the consequences of his actions ... filling his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating! When he returned home, his father forgave him and welcomed him back as a member of the family. However, the son probably had to live with another consequence of his actions ... no more inheritance for him! That son learned some valuable lessons in life.

After many years of being responsible for our children, it's hard to let go but we have to because we cannot protect them forever. Our children are a gift of the LORD (Psa. 127:3). Knowing that our children belong to Him gives us the confidence that the LORD will take good care of them. Commit our children back to Him. Trust the LORD.